Life

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Country Matters: 'Forest bathing' is good for both body and mind

Forest (stock photo)
Forest (stock photo)

Joe Kennedy

The buzz of a chain-saw and an ass braying in the distance are sounds of rural Ireland from John McGahern's radio play Sinclair. Donkeys may be fewer - but chainsaws and their shredded piles of shavings in woodland clearings are still familiar.

An area of forest twice the size of Britain has been sawn down in Brazil in the past decade to produce palm oil and soya, paper and pulp and grazing expanse for cattle. Ninety per cent of soya is used for animal feed. It is the second most significant driver of global deforestation.

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Anna Jones, of Greenpeace, said in an interview: "These companies are destroying our children's future by driving us towards climate and ecological collapse."

A woman showed me images of a shattered site of tree stumps and logs, bush and bramble debris on a property she had owned. She had been "reduced to despair" at the sight, she said. I suggested she should think of nature's mantle being replaced with cover for humans in need of it and displaced bird-life would resettle.

The levelling of swathes of forest once stirred deep emotions. Kilcash, the great estate of the Butlers and subject of an epic poem, is remembered: "What shall we do for timber?/ The last of the woods is down/ No sound of duck or geese there/ Hawk's cry or eagle's call/ No humming of bees there/ That brought honey and wax for all…." (taken from Frank O'Connor's translation from the 17th Century).

The clearing of the Tipperary woodlands of the O'Dwyers around Aherlow meant the loss of their old hunting country "where the summer sun was shining, birds' merry songs could be heard, woodcock and plover and a winded fox flying".

Now it was "to the ships at Galway/ Sean O'Dwyer a-gleanna, your pleasure is no more".

We all should spend more mindful time in woodland. The Japanese have been doing this for years to help physical and mental well-being. They call it 'shinrin-yoku' or 'forest bathing'.

A Tokyo doctor, Quin-Li, daily heads into a park near Nippon Medical School to have lunch and relax under the tree canopy, as he believes it is an important factor in preventing diseases of the mind and body. Each month, he also spends three days under the trees using his senses to connect with the environment and clear his mind. This counters illness, boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure and helps sleep, he says.

In the UK, the Woodland Trust has shown interest, as have Forestry England and the RSPB.

People have been taking woodland walks for centuries and contemporary studies show that exposure to trees, the sky and bird-song improves mental well-being. And a chemical called phytoncide, released by trees and plants, boosts the immune system.

'Shinrin-yoku' is now part of the Japanese health system, regarded as preventive medicine, not as a treatment.

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